22 Classic and Essential Food Experiences You Must Try in New York City
Half the fun of visiting New York is eating your face off. And while there are literally hundreds of Five Star and Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, that’s not what most of the locals rave about–the heart of New York’s food scene lies outside its fancy restaurants (though of course we have the best in the world and I’ll do a post about those later). It’s easy to find the highest rated restaurants but it’s not as easy to know where to find the local hotspots that serve up the stuff that the real foodies eat every day. Today I’m going to give you a guide to the best and most quintessential New York City eating experiences–the stuff that is irresistible that will keep you coming back to New York City time and time again. And the best part is that most of these celebrated New York classics aren’t expensive at all. It’s these essential dishes that really give New York its reputation for its stellar, inventive and delicious food. The pizza, the bagels, the cronuts…let’s take a deep dive into New York’s finest foods that everyone should experience at least once! In no particular order…
New York style pizza just might be the most classic NYC food (apologies Italy but y’all just don’t do it like we do). You can grab a slice on almost any block and for $2 you can enjoy one of New York’s classic meals that its busy locals swear by. There are books dedicated to the best ‘za in New York City and wars have been fought over who serves up the best slice. A few of my favorite spots that have withstood the test of time in Manhattan are John’s on Bleeker Street, Rubirosa, Lombardi’s and even Patsy’s.
And even though I hate on Brooklyn, they do have some of the best pizza in the city, some of its top spots are Di Fara, Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Avenue (between West 15th Street and West 16th Street) in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York) and Lucali (575 Henry St, Brooklyn, NY 11231). I think Grimaldi’s is overrated but go if you must just for the experience (there is also a Manhattan outpost now). And for a unique slice that’s highly regarded check out Artichoke Basille’s artichoke slice.
Zabar’s is an Upper West Side staple and a classic market worth checking out. It also serves some of the best lox on the planet. Ask for it thinly sliced, I promise you can thank me later! Russ and Daughters, Zuckers and Barney Greengrass also serve up pretty incredible lox as well.
Everyone has their favorite spots in NYC where to get their carbs fix. Some of the best are Murray’s Bagels, 72nd Street Bagels, and if you’re on the Upper East Side like me, check out Tal bagels, which I think is pretty darn good. Now let’s take a moment of silence for H&H bagels, which met its untimely demise in 2011…sigh…
Choosing the best burger in New York City is almost as difficult as choosing the best pizza place. Probably the most universally regarded burger praised as being the best is the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern. But this one will costa ya $28! It’s pretty fancy and it’s also pretty difficult to snag a reservation. here Some more classic burgers can be found at J.G. Melon (1291 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10021), the Spotted Pig, P.J. Clarks, Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien, and Corner Bistro. If you’re looking to go super casual you can’t miss a stop in at Shake Shack (go for the Shack Stack!). I LOVE it here.
Even though the cupcake craze is on the outs, if you haven’t been to Magnolia, Sugar Sweet Sunshine or Buttercup, you’re missing out. My personal favorite is a plain ole’ vanilla on vanilla action! Visit the Magnolia where they went on Sex and the City if you must (oh who am I kidding, I still love going. Haters gonna hate!) And if you want to try the West Coast chain Sprinkles, it’s pretty delicious as well.
There are no shortage of shrines to red meat in NYC. Peter Luger and Sparks are both old-school favorites. Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Old Homestead, Keens and Strip House are all also incredible.
New York’s Chinatown is a great place to sample Dim Sum. It’s most popular for weekend brunches actually–a strange tradition I didn’t learn about until I moved here. Head down to Nom Wah Tea Parlor if you’re looking for a classic spot. It’s the oldest Dim Sum restaurant and has been open since 1920. Jin Fong and Dim Sum Go Go are also fabulous.
When you think of New York, street vendors probably come to mind but we’ve come a long way baby! While I wouldn’t be caught dead eating a dawg from a street cart there are some finer options to get your fix. Of course there is Gray’s Papaya or Papaya King, which are New York institutions at this point. But there are also new and original spots like Asia Dog and Crif Dog, which serve up inventive varieties like bacon-wrapped, Asian-inspired and even vegetarian wieners!
This little gem deserves its own category. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers at Magnolia is unbeatable. An oldie but goodie!
This little pastry took New York and the world by storm. Often imitated but never replicated, be sure to sample cronuts from Dominique Ansel Bakery. There are plenty of imposters but they’re just not worth the calorie splurge. Decide for yourself whether they’re worth all the hype!
Frozen Hot Chocolate
Serendipity is so classic NYC that it even has its own movie. Plan on waiting for a table for 2 hours but it’s worth it just to say you’ve tried this mouthwatering concoction.
While we’re on the subject of after-hours eating, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Pommes Frites, the french fry window downtown. Grab a greasy cone of these suckers and pick your favorite dipping sauce. You’re welcome.
Whoever would have guessed that barbecue would be trendy? Not I! But if you’re looking for the best of the best you’ll have to hit up Dinosaur Bar-B-Que up in Harlem. The food is incredible and their sauces are to die for. Other heavyweight hitters in the BBQ market are Hill Country and Fette Sau (Brooklyn). And don’t forget about K-Town’s BBQ. Be sure to check out Shilla (37 W 32nd St, New York, NY 10001) if you’re looking to grill yourself some mouth-watering Bulgogi.
Get your pastrami on at Katz’s Delicatessen (home to Meg Ryan’s famous orgasm scene). Deli meat is something you must get when you’re in NYC and this is the best. 2nd Avenue Deli is also good if you’re in a pinch but nothing beats Katz’s environment.
People that live outside of NYC don’t realize that donuts are so much better than the Dunkin variety. In fact, after you’ve tried some from the Doughnut Plant, you’ll think everything else tastes like trash.
New York Style Cheesecake
A must have while you’re in the city. Junior’s, Carnegie Deli and Two Little Red Hens serve up our favorites.
The only thing Manhattan has more of than pizza joints are Italian restaurants. The best of the best is Locanda Verde, Rosemary’s, Il Buco and Del Posto. Okay, so these are obviously a bit on the fancy side and I strayed from my own rule but I think I’ll forgive myself just this once. But for more traditional Italian I LOVE Carmine’s in Times Square–might be the ONLY thing I like about that place.
Levain Bakery serves up the best and biggest cookies in the city. They’re ooey gooey in the middle. Order whatever variety is fresh out of the oven when you go.
City Bakery is by far my favorite spot to get hot chocolate. It tastes like they literally just melted down the best chocolate bars in the world and then throw a homemade marshmallow on top. It will cost you–$5 to be exact for a small espresso-sized to-go cup, but it will be worth every penny of it. My other fave hot chocolate is Jaques Torres, if you like a little spice go for the Wicked variety. Runner up: Francois Payard Bakery.
I know NYC isn’t Paris, mmm-kay? But when Parisian pastry chefs want to open another outpost of their stores where do you think they head to first? If you want to try the best macarons check out Ladurée. Runners up: La Maison du Chocolat and Francois Payard Bakery.
Brunch is an institution in New York City. Anyone who is anyone will be brunching on the weekends in their Sunday best with mimosa in hand. Balthazar, Barney Greengrass, Norma’s, Clinton Street Baking Co., are just a few of my favorites. My personal neighborhood fave on the UES is Parlor, which is a steakhouse but serves a fabulous brunch for great value (5 cocktails included!).
Harlem’s Red Rooster consistently cleans up in this category. While of course it’s a bit gentrified and thus not the most authentic at this point (I mean come on, if Manhattan glitterati hang here it loses some of its street cred), it still serves up some incredible comfort and soul food.
Where are your favorites? What have I forgotten!? I am sure you have your own, let me know in the comments!
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Be sure to check out my posts about Top 10 Things Tourists Must See in NYC as well as Top 10 Things to Do in NYC That Locals Love
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Love this article. So many great places to enjoy! Thanks!- January 24, 2014
Yes, you’ll have to make sure you’ve hit all of them on your next visit. So much for the diet!- January 25, 2014
Amazing article, I love your recommendations!!! I’m dreaming of a cronut right now…- January 29, 2014
Terrific article overall ,with that being said as a native new Yorker, there is 1 massive glitch in misinformationin it. There most certainly is an H&H bagels in existence still guys!! It’s on the upper east side located on 2nd. avenue between 80th & 81st street where it’s been and remains open for business for years. This article refers to the midtown west location that closed. Get your bagel at the H&H on the U.E.S!! 🙂- January 30, 2014
While they used to be owned by the same people, they no longer were. And pardon our snobbery but the Upper East locale just isn’t the same to us 🙂- February 1, 2014
I love your recommendations. Placing my order for cronuts now so I pick it up when I go in July. I would love to see an ethnic food version to this article with focus on ethnic best eats in the city. NYC is so diverse and it would be great to try good authentic food from all over. Thanks.- June 5, 2014
Quite a bit behind on all the fabulous things I WANT to write about Teresa, but I will certainly add this to my list of articles to do! Great idea!- June 6, 2014
Something you don’t know about from a different culture than yours doesn’t make it “strange”! On top of the fact that Dimsum as brunch is NOT a NY tradition…..
Dimsum is actually traditionally breakfast food and as brunch on weekends in Hong Kong and Mainland China (southern cities) amongst other countries with major Chinese populations, Malaysia, Singapore….etc…
And FYI, all the places you recommended are utmost Americanized, only non-Asians go to those places. If you are looking for something that at least a tiny bit resemble the real deal would be in Brooklyn or Flushing chiatown. Even those are still nothing like the real deal……
On a side note, why must American bastarize all cuisines that land in the US? Chinese cuisine is definitely not the only victim here…..why is American’s taste bud so closed minded and must make everything disgusting to adapt to their limited taste buds? Lol….
Do researches about things before you write about them.- September 15, 2014
Well, jp, these are just my personal opinions. Everyone is entitled to their own! Thanks for stopping by!- September 23, 2014
I think anytime someone likes Chinese food its all good 🙂 the Urban chopstick scene is always about discovery and the reviews aren’t always going to find and explore the really ethnic hotspots…or are they? it’s all good- October 7, 2014
We love all Chinese food here! Just trying to pick some of the favorites in NYC! Always happy to find new places!- October 10, 2014
Wow now I know where to avoid the crowds…any place you mentioned ( lox joints the exception) because those of us who actually LIVE here and pay rent and taxes here tend to avoid hyped places of any stripe or flavor.
If I wee visiting, maybe. But I seriously call into doubt anyone’s cred who says ” the best” ….
For example ” the best pizza” is the last one you ate that you liked….
So if I were reading this….well, WHY. Am I reading this drech?
FYI: Oh, calling us ” locals” is really insulting.- February 10, 2015
Sorry you feel this way, Harry. I refer to myself as a local and don’t see why it would be offensive. I also am writing for an audience of luxury travelers. These are the places I recommend. You are obviously free to disagree. There are so many wonderful places in Manhattan I obviously can’t get them all.- February 10, 2015
This looks yum. I can’t control my huger after reading this blog. Thanks for sharing this mouth watering article and pictures 🙂- November 17, 2015
welcome to my life! It’s so dangerous!- November 17, 2015
This article is so helpful. I have been to NYC but family has not and we are heading there next month. Any suggestions as to where to celebrate a birthday? Dinner and Dessert locations are welcomed!- October 23, 2016
Sorry I missed this comment! I just had a baby 🙂 Hope you found amazing restaurants! I am sure you did!- January 3, 2017